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You Say Div-ISS-ive, I Say Div-EYE-sive

gop-demo-thinkstockNow that the Republican convention has popped its balloons and the Democratic one is inflating theirs, let’s pause for a moment to consider politics and pronunciation. I had very little stomach for the speeches in Cleveland, but I did tune in long enough to hear a few words whose distinctive pronunciation got me thinking. My sampling is anecdotal and perhaps arbitrary; I’m hoping others will expand and perhaps clarify this list.

Divisive. This one didn’t begin with President Obama’s pronunciatio…

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You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

1011872_612122012174671_1054177590_nSo they say.

Hillary Clinton, for one. On June 1 she told a rally: “You can’t make this up. … Just yesterday we heard the truth about Donald Trump’s big talk about helping veterans. It wasn’t until the press shamed him that he actually made the donations. For months it was just a publicity stunt.”

And Salon on July 19: “Monday afternoon at a pro-Trump rally … a 16-year-old girl named Kate Kuptenko was called to the stage to sing an original song called, and you can’t make this stuff up, ‘Making …

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English, Italian Style

When I first traveled to Italy, nearly 50 years ago, I don’t recall seeing much public display of English, other than neon signs in Milan’s main square bearing the names of brands like Coca-Cola and Schweppes, and a few familiar phrases in shop windows, such as “Snack Bar” and “Self-service.” I’ve been lucky enough to return to that beautiful country many times since, and I don’t believe there was any change on the this score till the late ’80s, when there appeared T-shirts and sweatshirts beari…

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Babble, Brabbeln, Babiller, Balbettare

firstwordsI’ve spent the last month babbling. I like that word, babble. It’s what babies do before they “really” talk. It’s also the sound of water running over rocks. Apparently it is not related etymologically to Babel, the Hebrew word for Babylon, now known for the infamous tower whose builders were punished with the sudden eruption of mutually unintelligible languages.

I’ve been babbling because I have a purely fanciful desire to speak the major European languages, and my monthlong trip to Corsica a…

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Making Work

works“You’re just making work for yourself,” said somebody’s mother, and possibly mine.

Making work for yourself  – the reflexive component is essential to the judgmental tone — was a phrase I remember from my youth. It meant, of course, an inefficient and unnecessary expenditure of energy. It could be a task that would have to be done again anyway, though more simply and quickly, or it could be an activity that never had to be done in the first place.

The hyphenated term make-work is apparently an A…

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The World’s Best Philosopher of Linguistics

Yesterday while tidying my study I discovered something shocking: The world’s most brilliant, insightful, and prescient philosopher of linguistics died four months ago, and I didn’t know.

putnam

I was unwell in March, recovering from minor but painful surgery. Popping opiates like M&M’s, I would fall asleep while reading, and then lie awake in pain all night (my heart still aching from Tricia’s recent death). Yesterday I shifted a pile of papers and uncovered the March 26 issue of The Economist, open …

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Is Something the Matter With ‘Black Lives Matter’?

Cartoon by Kris Straub

Cartoon by Kris Straub

 

There are many things I like about the slogan “Black Lives Matter” (which I’ll abbreviate here as BLM). Most important, it addresses what to me is at the very root of racism and therefore of many of our social problems: a deep, usually unexamined feeling among the dominant group, in this case whites, that members of the oppressed group, in this case blacks, are in some way less important, less normal, than they are.

This feeling is the opposite of “white privilege.” It’s…

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Words Fail

I have been thinking a lot about the ways language isn’t sufficient — or feels insufficient — when we’re facing the kinds of tragic, horrifying, and deeply troubling events we’ve been facing this past week in the United States.

“Words fail,” we say.

Or, “There are no words.”

We cannot stop there. And I think we know it. Language has its limits, but language is also one of our most powerful tools for connection and for change.

There is good reason to measure our words. Language can hurt in powerf…

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The Worst Form of Government

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Robert Briffault

The British people’s referendum vote on June 23 proposed (by a slim majority of 51.9% to 48.1%) that the country should leave the world’s largest single market and embark on an unpredictable standalone future for which there had been no political or economic planning. A Churchillian remark crossed my mind immediately: the one about democracy being the worst form of government apart from every other one that had ever been tried.

The country’s politics fell apart straight away. As…

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Adviser Advisory

Letterpress StyleThe mark of a real journalist, I learned long ago, is knowing the proper spelling of adviser.

It stands out because until stepping into journalism, most neophytes have learned the other spelling. In high school, clubs and activities have advisors.  In college, more of the same, usually with academic progress monitored by a faculty advisor.

Against that background, adviser seems, er, a little undignified. But it’s an ironclad rule in journalism. The entry for the word in The Associated Press Styl…